Elastic Demand from Stretched Consumers

LA METRO passengersFaced with record gas prices, American fuel use is at a five-year low. Americans drove 30 billion fewer miles since November than during the same period a year earlier.

Americans joined their employers’ flexwork and commute programs. Families and friends linked trips together and rarely drove solo. Everyday heroes kept their gas guzzler parked most of the time and put miles on their other car which gets forty miles per gallon.

Now that my wife and I have moved from suburbia to the city, we have discovered what urban dwellers have long known, public transportation works. Our cars stay parked much of the time, as we travel on buses, subway, and good old-fashioned walking.

Although public transportation is effective in a compact city, it is a challenge in suburban sprawl such as Southern California, home to nearly 24 million people stretched from Los Angeles to Orange County to San Diego to San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.

When I grew up in Pasadena, a suburb of Los Angeles that is famous for its Rose Parade, my father had one choice to reach his L.A. job; he crawled the stop-and-go freeways to work and came home exhausted from the stressful traffic. While attending recent conferences in Los Angeles, I was able to take a more pleasant journey from Pasadena. Each morning, I walked two blocks, waited an average of five minutes, and then boarded the Metro Rail Gold Line, a modern light-rail that took me to Union Station in the heart of L.A. From there, I took L.A.’s modern and efficient subway to the conference hotel, a half-block walk. All for $1.50 (and system-wide day passes are just $5.00).

Later in the week, I added one transfer to the Blue Line, and then walked two blocks to the L.A. Convention Center. Although a car trip would have been somewhat faster at 5 a.m., I got door to door faster than cars in rush hour gridlock. L.A.’s light-rail and subway form the backbone for effective intermodal travel.

The L.A. Union Station is also the connecting point to train service from all over the U.S., servicing Amtrak and efficient local trains such as Metrolink. L.A. Union Station also offers express bus service to L.A. Airport. In the past, I have used Metrolink to travel from Irvine and from Claremont. Metrolink is seeing a 15% increase in ridership this year. “It’s absolutely the sticker shock and awe at the gas prices,” said Denise Tyrrell, a spokeswoman for Metrolink. “This is the time of year that we normally have lower ridership, but it’s only going up.”

In a few years, L.A. Union Station may also be the hub for the type of high-speed rail now enjoyed in Europe and Japan. Southern California travel time will be cut in half. Travel from L.A. to San Francisco will be two hours and forty minutes. High-Speed Rail Report

1.7 million times per day, people travel on Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro). Although light-rail is at the heart of the system, 90% of the rides are on buses, not light-rail. Much of the bus riding is similar to light-rail, using pleasant stations, pre-paid tickets for fast boarding, electronic signs that announce when the next bus will arrive, buses that seat 84 to 100 people, and some dedicated busways. Metro is using bus rapid transit that once only succeeded in South America. The Secrets of Curitiba

Although Southern California is highly dependent on foreign oil, Metro is not. Its fleet of over 2,550 buses represent the largest alt-fuel public transit fleet in the nation. Over 2,500 buses run on CNG. The natural gas is pipeline delivered to 10 Metro locations.

Last year, when I met with Metro’s General Manager Richard Hunt, and he discussed ways that more people would be served with clean transportation. He shared how Metro will move more riders at 4-minute intervals at the busiest stations. Like other major operators, Metro is under a California ARB mandate to start making 15% of its replacement fleet zero emission buses (ZEB). Metro has evaluated all of these potentially zero-emission alternatives:

• Battery electric
• Underground-electrified trolley
• Hydrogen fuel cell
• Hydrogen-blended with CNG

Currently, the most promising path to meet the ZEB requirement will be battery-electric buses. Under consideration are lithium-ion batteries operating with an electric drive train. The configuration could be similar to the six 40-foot New Flyer ISE gasoline hybrids currently on order. Metro is working with CalStart, a non-profit leader in clean transportation, and a consortium of Southern California transit operators.

Diesel and CNG buses normally need a range of at least 300 miles to cover routes for 16-plus hours daily; battery electric buses would be better suited for six to 8 hours of daily use during peak service periods (morning and evening rush hours). Ranges of 100 to 150 miles daily would be appropriate for peak battery electric use. Theoretically, with a bigger investment in batteries, advanced drive system maker ISE could actually build electric buses that meet a full 300 mile range by putting a remarkable 600kW of lithium batteries on the roof of each bus.

Critics of electric vehicles claim that oil is merely being replaced with dirty coal power plants. This is not true. There is excess grid-electricity at night. Metro already uses several MW of solar roofing with plans to expand. Coal is less than 30% of California’s electric grid mix, with megawatts of wind and concentrated solar power being added to the grid. Vehicles with electric motors and regenerative braking have reported fuel economy figures that are 300% more efficient than diesel and CNG internal combustion engine alternatives.

Yes, even in the sprawling 1,400 square mile region that Metro must service, transit is growing in use while total emissions are declining. Riders are freed from their oil dependent cars, save money riding transit, and can now enjoy the ride and breathe the air. A dollar spent on public transportation is going farther than spending ten bucks on more oil.

Conventional wisdom has been that American’s demand for petroleum is inelastic in relation to price. We are told that we are addicted to oil. We are lectured that the only solution is to find more oil at any price or turn coal into oil at any environmental price. The U.S. Congress is criticized for not turning California’s pristine coastline and the Artic National Refuge into oil patches. It now looks like the best solution is Economics 101. Price goes up and demand goes down. In fact, Americans are eager for fuel efficient vehicles, corporate commute programs, and effective public transportation. Now that we are economically stretched, demand for gasoline is suddenly elastic.

Copyright © 2008 John Addison. Some of this content may appear in John’s upcoming book, Save Gas, Save the Planet.

Share This Post

About Author: John Addison

Founder of the Clean Fleet Report, author of Save Gas, Save the Planet. John writes about electric cars, renewable energy, and sustainability. (c) Copyright John Addison. Permission to repost up to a 200 word summary if a link is included to the original article at Clean Fleet Report.

Comments are closed.